January 2018


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George Blake was perhaps the most successful double agent at the time of The Cold War. Working at the centre of British intelligence, for years he sent invaluable information to the KGB, in particular details of the tunnel the Americans constructed to tap into the Soviet communications across Berlin and the names of over a hundred British agents working there at the time. Blake was captured, escaped and survived and is still living in relative luxury in a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow, but he misses the sun.

So what made George Blake a spy? Was it that he never felt he belonged anywhere? Blake wasn’t even his name. It was Behar, but he was named George after the English King, George V.  His father, Albert, had a small company in Holland making heavy duty gloves for dockworkers, but George wasn’t close to his father; they didn’t even speak the same language. George was brought up speaking Dutch; his father spoke English and French. He was also half Jewish; his paternal grandfather had been a carpet dealer in Istanbul, but the family kept that a secret. George was much closer to his mother, who was very religious; he wanted to be a pastor.  George always had a strong social conscience.

While George was still at school, Albert’s company failed and then shortly afterwards Albert died. His mother struggled to keep the family in their house by the canal, but his father’s sister had married a rich French merchant and George, his two sisters and their mothers were invited to live with them in their mansion in Cairo. It was there that he completed his education and met his playboy cousin, Henri Curiel, who was the joint leader of the Communist party in Cairo. Curiel was later assassinated in Paris.

He was back at school and staying with his grandmother in Rotterdam when the Nazi’s invaded. He remembered the bombers coming over. His mother was desperate to contact him, but escaped with his two sisters on the last boat to England, the same boat that took the Dutch Royal Family into exile. He came home to find nobody in their apartment and the breakfast things still on the table. He stayed on in Holland for a while, running messages for the Dutch resistance. He enjoyed the excitement of living on the edge. In 1942, he managed to escape through occupied France to Spain and hop on a boat to join his family in England.

In London he grew a beard and was recruited into the Special Intelligence Service. They were impressed by his resourcefulness and need to make a difference. He claimed that he was dropped by parachute in Holland as part of the liberating force, but there was no evidence that was correct. George could be a bit of a fantasist, a Walter Mitty character. So it seemed that George possessed all the credentials to be a double agent: strong social and political convictions but no strong allegiance to any country or any religion, somewhat guarded and secretive, no strong emotional ties, resourceful and independent. He told people he wanted to make a difference in the world.

When war erupted in Korea, he was sent to Seoul and was instructed to go north to Vladivostok and recruit Russian agents who would work for the British. He was in Seoul when communist troops invaded and was imprisoned with other members of western legations. It was while he was a prisoner in Korea that he witnessed the American bombing of Korean villages and decided that he was on the wrong side. Together with the other prisoners, he was escorted on the long march through the mountains to the north. He seized the opportunity to escape but was recaptured. It is probable that he made contact with officers from the KGB at around that time and was recruited as a communist agent.

After 2 years in prison in Korea, Blake was released and sent back to England as a hero, seemingly none the worse for his experience. Impressed by his work in the Far East, he joined MI6. One of his first tasks was to take the minutes for the meeting setting out plans to build a tunnel to tap into the Soviet secret communications channel across Berlin. He printed the document out and handed it to his minder on the top deck of a London bus. The Russians did not react; keeping the identity of such a valuable double agent was too important to them.  So they kept their communications open and allowed Blake, now in Berlin, to continue sending his reports on to Britain in return for information from him. He handed over the names of at least a hundred British agents and much more strategic information over the course of the next few years. It was while George was on his next assignment in Lebanon that MI6 grew suspicious of his role in betraying the existence of their tunnel.

Brought back to England for interrogation, he admitted to spying for the KGB and was sentenced to a very harsh 42 years of imprisonment on various counts of treason.  While serving time in Wormwood Scrubs, he was a model prisoner and was allowed certain privileges, such as access to the library. It was there he met the Irishman, Sean Bourke, who was doing five years for being connected with a bomb incident. Bourke was impressed by Blake’s courage and convictions and decided to help him escape using a hacksaw and a crude rope ladder and the assistance of some local helpers from the CND. Blake injured himself falling from the wall, but was whisked away to a safe house, where he was patched up by a doctor, the girl friend of one of the conspirators. It was touch and go; there was a massive search for him. He was nearly discovered when the wife of the owner of the apartment told her therapist that she had a spy in her flat. The therapist, however, thought she was delusional and ignored it. Hiding under the seat of a camper van, Blake escaped through Europe and was deposited at the Russian border, where he walked to the guard house and asked to speak to a member of the KGB.

Later in Moscow, he invited Bourke to join him for a holiday in his luxurious, KGB apartment in the centre of the city, no doubt wishing to recruit him. Once there, Bourke found he was trapped. He stayed for a year and a half but was eventually allowed to return to Ireland. The British Government applied for extradition, but the Irish government refused. So Bourke stayed in Dublin and, in between drinking sprees, was able to complete and publish his book, ‘Springing George Blake ‘. He died in 1982, his life cut short by alcoholism.

Simon Gray’s play, ‘Cell Mates’, covers the time from when Blake and Bourke met in the library of Wormwood Scrubs to when Bourke was allowed to return to Ireland. It covers the trajectory of their relationship from Bourke’s idealisation of Blake in the beginning to his disillusion, a course accompanied by his increasing alcoholism. ‘Cell Mates’ is a play about trust and duplicity that questions what drove Blake to be a spy.

There is something detached, almost autistic, about George Blake. He never acknowledged that he did anything wrong. He was convinced that Russian communism was the practical means whereby the Kingdom of God would be built on earth. He regarded Russia as his spiritual home. More committed to ‘the cause’ than people and a narcissistic desire to make a difference, Blake advised his wife, who had also worked for MI6 and by whom he had three children, to divorce him.

Blake still lives in the leafy outskirts of Moscow in the green-painted, wooden dacha, donated to him by a grateful state. He is 95 and seemingly in good health. In 2007, he was awarded another medal by Vladamir Putin for his services to Russia. He has married again and has another son. His second wife still looks after him. Blake has no regrets over what he did. He had no particular loyalty to Britain, but he is disappointed by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and does not like Putin, though he keeps that a secret from the Russians.

Simon Gray’s play is as enigmatic as the spy, himself. We don’t really get any insights about the relationship between Bourke and Blake. Were they gay? Probably not; Blake was married twice. Did Blake trick Bourke into staying in Moscow with him, only to arrange for him to leave when he realised how unreliable he was? Was Bourke’s life ever in danger? It seems that Blake was too self centred to feel any lasting attachment to another person and any guilt, but has created a myth that he can live with.

He reminds me of Julian Assange, who continues to live in the Ecuadorian Embassy, protesting his right to do what he did, while the world has largely forgotten about him. A recent report said that the Ecuadorian officials were complaining about his personal hygeine. Wikileaks, it seems, has become Whiffyleaks!

Stephen Fry was originally cast to play Blake and Rik Myall was cast as Bourke when ‘Cell Mates’ first opened in the West End in 1995, but the production had mixed reviews and was panned after Fry dramatically left because of depression. This is the first revival since that disastrous opening. Should they have bothered? Probably not. It seems to me that the back story of George Blake is much more interesting than the play.

Cell Mates played at The Hampstead Theatre until January 20th. It was directed by Edward Hall with Geoffrey Streathfield as Blake and Emmet Byrne as Bourke.The

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how to stop brexit

Nick Clegg, Britain’s erstwhile deputy prime minister, is such a skilled political commentator. Last year, I enjoyed his book ‘Politics: Between the Extremes’, in which he advocated centrist politics. Clegg is a reasonable man. He outperformed both David Cameron and Gordon Brown in the 2015 Election debates. His latest book, ‘How to Stop Brexit’, just 136 pages long, is written more in the genre of a political self help book for the thoughtful voter. As Clegg might say if he were not so self effacing, ‘How to Stop Brexit is the indispensable handbook for saving Britain from an entirely pointless calamity’. Of course, Mr Clegg will be criticised as a remoaner and a dedicated Europhile, but he still represents the centre ground of reason in British politics and he deserves to be listened to.

In the first section of the book, he set out the reasons why so many people felt impelled to vote to leave Europe at the 2015 referendum. They included: fears of loss of sovereignty, uncontrolled immigration, interference in our courts and institutions, the threat of a federal Europe and a nostalgia for a time when Britain was great; perhaps even a reaffirmation of the British Commonwealth. Britain has never had the same attachment to Europe because of the events of the Second World War when it stood alone isolated from the continent. The perspective of France or Germany is very different.

Clegg explained that Cameron felt impelled to hold a referendum in order to silence once and for all the large body of eurosceptics within his party and to halt the threat of a resurgent, populist UK Independence Party. He also identified the elite businessmen and millionaires who bankrolled the Brexit campaign, asserting that Brexit was not a triumph of the little man against the powerful elite; it was more a powerful coterie of rich elite manipulating the minds of the masses. He reaffirmed the statistics behind the vote, pointing out that 72% of young people voted to remain, while those who voted to leave were a mixture of the elderly, the workers, nervous of losing their jobs to foreign immigrants and the shires of little England. The majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted to remain. The vote was close; too close. 52% voted to leave; 48% to remain. If the franchise were extended to all of those over 16, it would have gone the other way. A fervent supporter of proportional representation, Clegg demanded to know how the millions who voted to remain will be represented. An in/out referendum is already being seen as a foolish strategy, based more on power and party politics than the rights of the people. It should never have been a case of in or out, but more a case of making life in Europe better by revising the workings of the European Union as Britain has been trying to do for the last forty years. After all, it was Britain who suggested the structure of the single market and the customs union. It is therefore rather galling to find that since the referendum, Europe has got its house in order in a way that would have suited Britain better.

David Cameron took an enormous risk. Maybe, having fought the 2015 on the promise of offering people an in/out vote on Brexit, he felt he didn’t have a choice, but then again, he never thought he would lose; he was a man who had never lost anything in his life. Maybe he should have kept out of campaigning, as he did with the Scottish referendum  and Harold Wilson did in the first EU referendum in 1975.  So Cameron rushed through the 2016 referendum just a year into his government with insufficient preparation. Many people, myself included, did not understand the arguments. Others were frightened by the conflict of misleading statistics from experts on both sides. Some may have even been swayed by the promise emblazoned on the side of Boris Johnson’s battle bus, the 350 million pounds windfall from not having to pay Europe that would be given to the NHS.  But perhaps most reasonable people were irritated by having to make a choice they felt was unnecessary about implications they didn’t really understand.

Nobody had prepared for a leave result. Cameron resigned on the spot, recommending Mrs May, who had campaigned to remain in Europe, as the person best equipped to unite the party in the upcoming negotiations to leave. Having started the clock ticking by declaring Article 50, she then wasted months fighting a pointless snap election, which was designed to strengthen her authority but ended up losing the conservatives their majority and necessitating a humiliating agreement with the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland. Since then, May and her ‘Brexit Bulldog’, David Davies, have postured in Brussels and squabbled with their own party. It has been a shambles and all that has been achieved is an unsatisfactory climb down and a last ditch agreement to move on to trade talks.

Clegg identifies Mrs May as not having the flexibility to negotiate while Jeremy Corbyn just sits on his hands and waiting for it all to fail. With so little progress emerging so far, about the most interesting revelation has been that David Davis and Michel Barnier share a love of hiking, but while Barnier has polished his boots, planned his route and stocked up with energy bars, Davis is still struggling with the zip on his anorak!

In the second part of the book, Clegg describes the disastrous consequences for Britain of leaving the EU, the loss of trade, the erosion of Britain’s influence in the world in direct contrast to what the Brexiteers fought for, the loss of any ability to determine our own future on the fringes of a Europe that is controlled by a combination of Eurocrats and big business.

After the surprise election of Donald Trump, Mrs May rushed over to America to hold the new incumbent’s hand and assert their special relationship, promising a state visit to Britain. That was then. The state visit is on hold and so is that special relationship. Meanwhile Emmanuel Macron invited Trump over as guest of honour on Bastille Day.

After the result of the referendum, there is a certain inevitability about Brexit. Backing down does not seem an option. Britain would lose face, and become a laughing stock. But it already is. Clegg makes the point that it is not too late to change our minds. Many people, angry at having been so misled, seem to have done so already, Clegg asserts. The result was hardly represented the will of the people, he reiterates, reminding us that we are deciding the future not of us but for the millions of young people who voted to remain or would have done so if they were old enough to vote. It is their future that is being decided. If Mrs May were not so implacable or Jeremy Corbyn less inscrutable, ministers could force another vote for the good of the country.

Setting out a plan for revision, Clegg appeals to all of us, saying that if we think that the wrong decision has been made, we should make our voice count by writing to May or Corbyn, joining their party, attending a party congress, tabling a motion. Parliament is due to vote on the final deal in October. If they fail to do so, Clegg insists that we should hold another referendum and go back to Europe and renegotiate a new deal. If successful, it will never result in all the concessions and special deals we have enjoyed in the past, Our position in Europe would be more of an associate than a prime mover for the time being, or as Clegg puts it, more on the outer circle of Europe than at its core; ’twas ever thus. But it’s not like Britain will have no influence. We will still be one of the biggest economies in Europe with a seat at the table. Britain will remain close to Europe no matter how Brexit works out.

To catalyse such a new deal, he further recommends setting up a UK/EU commission under the direction of Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister and Anglophile and guess who – Sir John Major, pilloried at the time by Spitting Image as the grey man of British politics, but the man who negotiated the Maastricht treaty and Britain’s special deal on the Euro. The signs are that if Britain did want to rejoin or not leave, the door would be open. Several heads of state have said as much. Jean Claude Junker has said that he wants to be in the same boat as Britain, while Donald Tusk put it more poetically, ‘you may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one’. So, according to Clegg, it’s up to us.

It all seems very unlikely that the upcoming trade negotiations will work out well for Britain. We cannot have our cake and eat it. Britain will not be allowed to stay in the single market. It suits France’s and Germany’s vision of a more integrated Europe that we are on the periphery where we can no longer hold things up.  The world has changed since the European project first got underway in the nineteen fifties.  There does not seem to be a coherent plan on how Britain can survive, let alone prosper, outside the European single market.  As Captain Oates might have said all those years ago in Antarctica, ‘it would have been better to stay inside the tent pissing out than to go outside’, but he did realise that he ‘might be gone for some time’!

Resignation Syndrome

Ylena is just nine years old, the daughter of asylum seekers, currently living in Sweden. Shortly after arriving, while her mother was pregnant with her baby brother, she was afflicted with a strange illness. From being a very active young girl, she became listless and tired, she wouldn’t explain what was the matter, then she stopped talking altogether, she wouldn’t eat and she wouldn’t even get out of bed even to go to the toilet. There were no signs of any identifiable disease. The doctors were perplexed. All they could do was keep her alive by tube feeding, maintain hydration and hygeine, treat any infections, massage her limbs and prevent pressure sores. For most of the time, she slept in nappies like a baby. It is now five months since she became ill. Her parents are beside themselves with worry, not only about Ylena, but also the family’s immigrant status. The Swedish government has informed them that when their 13 month temporary residence expires, they will be deported. It was because their lives were in severe danger that they were forced to escape their country of origin and seek asylum.  They fear they will all be killed if they return.

Ylena is not the only child to be afflicted with this strange condition. It has been observed in the children of many asylum seekers in Sweden, and often occurs in clusters of friends or family members. It has been called Resignation Syndrome because it seems like the children afflicted have given up on life, but although the children are non responsive, their pulse and other physiological signs react to the presence of other people.

All the children affected by Resignation Syndrome have witnessed severe trauma often directed against their mother or father in their country of origin and the family is under threat of deportation. It is like, having witnessed extreme abuse, they cannot cope with the anxiety that their life will again be threatened. If their parents are taken away, how will they survive?  It is like the children have gone into a state of dissociation, like ‘Sleeping Beauty’.  But the illness tends to recover spontaneously if the threat of deportation is lifted.  Thus it seems that the cause of the illness is the extreme insecurity and the treatment is hope.

This epidemic has only been reported among asylum seekers in Sweden. Is this because Sweden has taken in a disproportionately large number of immigrants in recent years, but their policy for asylum has now become more strict, maybe because a few people were feigning illness to stay. But Resignation Syndrome is not faked.

Although the standard Swedish health policy has been to support life and wait for the illness to recover spontaneously or not, there is one clinic where they have instituted a radical new treatment. The children are separated from their parents and accommodated in friendly, comfortable surroundings, where staff play and engage with them in a positive way. There is, however, one strict rule; nobody is allowed to talk about deportation. Separated from the constant threat, children start to recover often within days and most make a complete recovery. But then they have to return to their parents and the threat of deportation.

There are clearly similarities between Resignation Syndrome and other unexplained illnesses, notably Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Anorexia nervosa and perhaps some patients with severe constipation predominant Irritable Bowel Syndrome, all of which may be instigated by trauma. Perhaps the epidemiological links with insecurity and the therapeutic influence of hope apply to all of them. The beneficial effect of removing the children from an environment that is toxic is also important. Illness isn’t just about medicine, politics and culture can have an important influence.

This post was inspired by Crossing Continents, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last Thursday.

Hot-Milk

Rose is paralysed. She cannot walk or even feel her legs. The doctors do not seem to know what is wrong. So Sofia has accompanied her mother to see Dr Gomez, a charismatic doctor/healer with a clinic, built in white marble ‘like a spectral beast’ on a hilltop in Almeria, Southern Spain. Throughout Deborah Levy’s new novel, Hot Milk, we are never quite sure whether Gomez is just a clever practitioner, who is trying to create the conditions where Rose has no alternative but get well, or whether he is a charlatan preying on her vulnerability to fund his clinic.

Ever since Rose was abandoned by Christos, Sofia’s Greek father, she has been dependant on her daughter to care for her. Bound by chains of control and dependency, Sofia has struggled to find her own life. She trained to be an anthropologist, interested, of course, in kinship, but she works as a barista and in her spare time, experiments with sexual relationships with both men and women. Her obsession with Ingrid, whose ‘body is long and hard like an autobahn’, seems to mirror her dysfunctional attachment with her mother, while with Juan she plays out a desire that is never quite reciprocated.

A little more than halfway through Sofia, throws a vase on the floor. The vase is a replica of an ancient Greek krater. In the shards Sofia sees “the ruins that were once a whole civilisation”, an image of her mother’s shattered life in Greece. When she takes a week off to visit her father in Athens, a city broken by economic collapse, she finds him shacked up with his child bride and baby daughter in small apartment. She sleeps in an airless storeroom on a camp bed that collapses as soon as she lies down on it. Upon leaving, she discovers her father has made a will leaving all of his not inconsiderable wealth to the church.

Back in Spain, she goes swimming in the sea and notices her mother walking over the sand. Her legs are clearly working fine. She swims though a swarm of medusa jellyfish which sting her into action. “My love for my mother is like an axe,” Sofia says. “It cuts very deep.”

Later, she offers to take her mother for a drive, but at a viewpoint high in the hills, she wheels her mother to the centre of the road. In the distance she sees a white lorry approaching. So she leaves her and drives off. When she returns to the apartment her mother is already there. Without a word, she walks into the kitchen to fetch Sophie a drink.

Deborah Levy’s novel is not a great read. I could not easily sympathise with any of the characters. The men seemed not to care, the women self centred and acting out of a sense of injustice or grievance. The stark desert landscape, the relentless sun, the chained Alsatian on the beach that won’t stop barking, the sea full of poisonous jellyfish; they all seemed to represent Sofia’s life in confined exile. She uses her desperate, ambivalent sexuality as a gesture of freedom from her dysfunctional relationship with her parents that she cannot relinquish, but that in turn threatens to be an obsessional entrapment. Ingrid calls Sofia a monster. Perhaps she is. She is certainly not a heroine I could warm to.

Hot Milk isn’t a long novel, but it is heavy with meaning, like a poem. In the first few pages, Sofia drops her computer and its screen shatters. “My laptop has all my life in it and knows more about me than anyone else”. Perhaps that is a clue. Deborah Levy’s book about identity and entrapment. Sofia floats through her life like the poisonous jellyfish which drive the tourists away from the white-hot beach. Her her mother’s illness devours her past, her father’s new family render it meaningless, and her relationships with Ingrid, with Juan, with the inscrutable Gómez, seem to evaporate like spray on hot sand.

Perhaps her trip to Spain with her mother marks a fracture in her life, a life that has been on hold because of her mother’s incessant demands and her confusion of her mother with herself. When her mother limps painfully, so does Sofia. “My legs are her legs.”, she says. Only now, it seems, they can both walk away independantly, but to where?

Hot Milk is a powerfully hypnotic narrative of a troubled life, containing a constellation of disturbing symbols, that continue to haunt me long after I turned the final page.

Darkest HourThe continued vacillation among those who would rule us is so depressing. It feels like a capitulation, a retreat from a position of power and influence to a place of deep insecurity. David Cameron need not have called the referendum. It was more about political survival of the Tory government than what was in the best interests of the country. He was the man in charge and he bottled out. And now Mrs May, our self proclaimed ‘strong and stable’ leader, is being held to ransom by a European Union, who are no doubt fed up with Britain’s prolonged ambivalence over the whole European project. Many on both sides of the political divide complain and threaten to undermine the process. Their hearts may not be in it, but the people have voted. Britain is alone, cast adrift from Europe. So do we wring our hands and go back to Europe cap in hand and plead for a good deal or do we strike out alone and make the best of it?

It is not the first time, our little island has been alone. In May of 1940, Hitler’s panzers had raced through Holland, Belgium and into France. The total British Army, 300,000 men, were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. The House had lost confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had tried to appease the Nazis, and somewhat reluctantly appointed Winston Churchill to lead a coalition government.

Joe Wright’s film, ‘Darkest Hour, covers three weeks during the month of May 1940 from the time Winston Churchill was appointed prime minister to the evacuation from Dunkirk. Much of it was shot in the gothic gloom of The Houses of Parliament or in the underground war rooms in Whitehall. Gary Oldman was a surprising choice to play Churchill. He needed a lot of prosthetic work to transform his face and body. Nevertheless, his manner was convincing, though was Churchill really such a clown? Was he so volatile? Kirsten Scott Thomas, playing Clemmie, was a wonderful foil for his excesses. As she remarked, ‘he is just a man‘.

The action centred around the arguments within the War Cabinet.   Lord Halifax favoured contacting the Italians to broker a negotiation with Hitler. Churchill was having none of it: ‘You do not negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its jaws!‘. But he felt worn down by the reality of the situation and the sheer burden of responsibility. The most moving part of the film, totally fictitious and heavily criticised, was when Churchill hopped out of his car and took the tube for the last bit of his journey to Westminster. He got into conversation with the people in his carriage and asked them what they thought of the idea of negotiating with Hitler. They had no doubt. ‘Never‘, they all cried. Churchill then quickly drafted his famous speech to parliament and delivered it to resounding acclaim. ‘We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Within the next few days, the British Army was evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk by Churchill’s flotilla of little boats. And a few months later, the RAF delivered their own riposte to Hitler’s invasion plans. ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few‘. Such stirring stuff. I was born in 1945, just after the war. My father had served in the RAF. It was in my DNA.

Churchill’s genius was the way in which he sent words into battle to inspire a nation. Politicians since then have aspired to do the same thing, but, with few exceptions, they have lacked courage and conviction. And so, we have arrived at our current depressing state. For a current generation, ‘now’ might be seen as their darkest hour. Only this time, the threat has been self inflicted and there seems no plan and little sign of redemption